Tennessee earned its first marquee win of the young college basketball season Friday night, routing reigning national champion Kansas 64-50 in the title game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
What's even more promising for the No. 22 Volunteers is that they were without senior guard Josiah-Jordan James for a third consecutive contest due to knee soreness and that they could have played so much cleaner. Tennessee convincingly ended the 17-game winning streak of the No. 3 Jayhawks despite committing 24 turnovers, including 17 in the first half.
"We knew the turnovers were a big problem and that a lot of their points came off of our turnovers," Tennessee sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler said on a Zoom call. "Once we cut that down and when we cut that down, we knew it would be a whole different ballgame, and I believe that showed in the second half."
Friday's outcome resulted in Tennessee's ninth victory over an Associated Press top-five team in the Rick Barnes era, and it was driven by a defensive effort that limited Kansas to 32.1% shooting, including 23.8% from 3-point range.
"I think the main takeaway from the whole week is to stay together," Vols senior guard Santiago Vescovi said. "Through the tough times, that's what you've got to do. We knew we were missing Josiah, and he's a really big part of this team, but he still led the team from the bench. His voice was incredible, and he was like another coach on the bench."
The Vols led wire to wire and took their first double-digit advantage at 48-38 on a Zeigler free throw with 10:47 remaining, and a steal and layup by Zeigler seconds later extended the lead to 50-38. A Zeigler 3-pointer with 7:01 to play gave Tennessee its largest bulge at 56-38.
Vescovi led the Vols (5-1) with 20 points, while Zeigler added 14 and Tyreke Key 10, with that trio combining to go 10-of-22 from 3-point range. Jalen Wilson was the lone player for the Jayhawks (6-1) to reach double figures, tallying 14.
"We can't control whether we make shots or not," Zeigler said, "so our mentality was to stop the man in front of us."
Vescovi and Jonas Aidoo connected on 3-pointers within the game's first five minutes to stake Tennessee to a 10-2 lead, and a Uros Plavsic layup at the 13:02 mark gave the Vols their biggest first-half edge at 12-3. Kansas pulled within one at 17-16 and within three at 28-25, but an Olivier Nkamhoua 3 with five seconds left enabled Tennessee to take a 33-25 lead into intermission.
The Vols, who were a wretched 8-of-33 on 3-point attempts (24.2%) in their two opening tournament wins over Butler and Southern California, were 7-of-13 from long range in the first half for a 53.8% success rate. Nkamhoua committed five of Tennessee's first-half turnovers, with Plavsic and Zeigler committing three apiece.
"What we did not just tonight but in three days was physically tough," Barnes said. "We try to run. It's not like we're walking the ball up the floor, so we're going on both ends."
Tennessee will return to action Wednesday night when McNeese State visits Thompson-Boling Arena in a matchup that will be televised by the SEC Network.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.